Though I considered tacking New Plymouth on to our earlier trip to Rotorua, there was too much to do to do it justice; we did a dis-service to Whanganui instead. But we’ve just had our two-week summer holiday here in New Zealand, and we had three days free in the new year – three days to visit the fair city of New Plymouth.
New Plymouth is the major centre in the Taranaki region. It’s named after Plymouth in Devon, as the first English settlers were from the west country back in 1841 – Kate was right at home!
New Plymouth is five hours from Wellington. From around Hawera, Mt Taranaki rose up in the distance, and is that central reference point throughout the entire Taranaki region. It’s an iconic volcano, and we were lucky to see it on our drive up. I told Kate to take many photos on our way – it’s so often shrouded in fog and cloud we were lucky to see it – and just as well she did, as we never saw it again!
Our drive up took us inland of the mountain, through Stratford and Inglewood. These are classic large-ish New Zealand towns; all the shops hanging off the main highway, and the highway being pretty wide. It’s a boring photo but maybe the ‘standard town’ is of interest to overseas people!
Upon arrival, our first job was to erect the tent. The Christmas/new year holiday is as peak as peak season gets for New Zealand camp sites, and we were nestled on an extension of the Fitzroy Beach Holiday Park. We had to take the Jazz on off-road slopes to reach our site through a tiny gap in a council fenceline. The grass on our plot was suffering the severe anaemia of two weeks of constant camping. Though the camp site was at capacity, our site was primo – sheltered from the beach, yet a one minute stroll to the surf.
Before we left Wellington Kate had worked her magic in the kitchen, preparing us victuals for the trip: breakfast muffins, a quiche, a casserole and nacho mince. We invited our friends K and V over for a feed, as they were in town long-term visiting family. We shared dinner and a bottle of wine, then as night fell they took us to Pukekura Park and the Festival of Lights.
As we were to discover, New Plymouth is renowned for its fine gardens due to the quality of the volcanic soils. The most central garden is Pukekura Park, a nicely landscaped park which incorporates a cricket pitch and a myriad of performance areas around native bush. Over the summer months the council sets up hundreds of lights in the garden, and in the evening the place hums. While some lights are designed to augment the beauty of the signature fauna, others produce a gaudy, Vegas-like tack – but it’s all something different and the people love it. We were four of them.
In the morning we headed in to town to visit the galleries and museums of New Plymouth. There are two main players – the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery and Puke Ariki. We first headed over to the Govett-Brewster.
The gallery is a wavy, shimmery work of architecture. We could tell we were early; middle-aged couples in cargo shorts adorned with bum-bags were loitering about. We crossed over to the beach to whittle the time away – it’s only ever a block or two away in the CBD.
Also, I’ll apologise for my pictures from here on – I never turned the sack of garbage off ‘night mode’ from the festival of lights, and everything looked fine on the little screen. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – Olympus cameras are shit.
We came back to the Govett-Brewster gallery as it opened. It’s a fantastic building, a work of art in its own right. Unfortunately the exhibitions on our visit did little to catch our imagination – typical modern art bullshit. Child-like drawings, basic ideas and concepts only making sense if you read the self-congratulatory wank-board descriptions. Modern art! They did have one great bit though, a couple of walls of New Zealand advertising/propaganda boards for protest groups and government initiatives for various causes during the ’60s.
Next up was Puke Ariki – the museum of New Plymouth. We had a cuppa then ventured in to the child-infested museum and library.
The museum is quite excellent. There’s a great section on Taranaki – the geology, the fauna and early European settlement. There’s a huge and respectful section on the local Maori too – much like that in Rotorua (but free so with the corresponding tyre-kicking tourists and toddler/parent combos doing their bit to slightly ruin everything).
One part I was particularly interested in was the video on efforts to bring the Kokako back from extinction, a native bird with lovely song. Huge efforts were made to capture the last Taranaki males for breeding with offshore island females to increase the genetic diversity. The museum had a lovely little cinema, complete with Kokako-coloured seating, which played a video every thirty minutes. As the video began, unfortunately two sets of parents decided it was a daycare room, and had their kids running around shouting over all the softly-spoken DOC workers explaining their work. I’m pretty relaxed usually, but it wasn’t a documentary for kids. I couldn’t hear anything. If your kids can’t keep their mouths shut, GET YOUR FUCKING KIDS OUT OF THE CINEMA.
After labouring through the video because we really were interested, we couldn’t stomach any more kids – we left the museum. Returning to the car we noticed the bumper was mashed – while we were enjoying the company of generation-dick, some asshole had backed in to the Jazz. Fotunately only the bumper was bent, but we were low-on-love for people for a moment here.
We headed over to the Te Rewa Rewa bridge reserve to have lunch. Food and ducks always improve one’s mood.
What really turned us around was visiting the Tupare gardens, in the suburbs south of the city. This place was a real surprise. Built in the 1930s, it’s a wee house and gardener’s cottage nestled in wonderful gardens. Kate and I were struck by how ‘National Trust’ it felt – this little piece of surprise Britain in the middle of New Plymouth. Indeed, the build was inspired by the Mathews’ family honeymoon in Britain. We were well-chuffed. We had the place mostly to ourselves. It was just what we needed, to enjoy this New Zealand hillside-take on an English garden. It’s wonderfully done, with free umbrellas if it’s raining, and in the cottage, a piano-accompanied video plays through a 1950s TV set of family videos on the property. We visited a lot of National Trust properties in Britain and this was more than many’s equal – definitely check it out if you’re around, it’s free to boot!
In the evening Kate and I got to reading back in our tent. Eventually Kate fell asleep, so to entertain myself I went for a walk on the beach. I discovered a dead eel.
We awoke to bucketing rain and strong winds. I briefly considered packing up and heading home, as many other campers were doing – but instead we seized the day and headed out to visit another Taranaki garden, Pukeiti. Pukeiti is hidden on a long windy road in Egmont National Park. Mathews, the dude who owned Tupare, was involved in setting this garden up in the 1950s.
We pulled in to the empty carpark and entered the visitor centre. No-one was around – no-one, aside from a sparrow, desperately trying to escape, bashing itself in to windows. After a third attempt it concussed itself enough for Kate to pick it up. She put it outside on a bench.
The garden is a big deal if you’re in to rhododendrons, but we aren’t – and we had just missed the best blooms anyway. Instead what interested us was the regenerating rainforest – it really was lovely. To top it off we were the only people there – it was a beautiful moment, one of the highlights of our trip. The photos do no justice.
Pukeiti is out of town some, and we were almost at the western edge of Taranaki – so we decided to finish it off, and visit the Cape Egmont Lighthouse.
Unbeknownst to us, Cape Egmont was the first bit of New Zealand a European explorer discovered – Abel Tasman discovered it in 1642. The lighthouse was built in England and erected in Wellington originally – but it got confused with Pencarrow Lighthouse by seafarers and was moved over to Taranaki.
Our friends K and V popped out to visit the lighthouse with us, and together we scrambled down to the coast and poked around the rock pools. It was fun ‘rockpooling’ like kids; there are a lot of crabs around!
All too soon the rain came on again, and we headed down to Opunake to have lunch on the lower-west coast of Taranaki.
Saying farewell to our friends, we headed back to camp. We picked up some fish and chips for our last night – a welcome new tradition!
The rain and wind started howling through the campsite. Kate and I huddled down in the tent, reading books and drinking everything we had left.
At dusk there was a lull in the rain. We toddled over to the beach to farewell New Plymouth. The tide was out and the sun poked through the cloud long enough to enjoy a wonderful sunset. Thanks for a lovely trip New Plymouth.